A Mail Ma'am's Mission to Protect Bluebirds

Photograph by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images
Photograph by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images
Photograph by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images
Photograph by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images
Photograph by Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images

A Mail Ma'am's Mission to Protect Bluebirds

A Virginia letter carrier has turned her route into a haven for nesting eastern bluebirds.

By Michele Berger/Photography by Jeff Hutchens
Published: July-August 2012

On a stifling summer afternoon, Rita Shultz has sweated through her yellow T-shirt where her long brown braid hangs, but she doesn't seem to notice the heat. She's too focused on assembling a birdhouse with her builder pal, Mick Knight. Although there are already two boxes on this property, the yard has no bluebird families, so Shultz is trying again. On the clock, this 58-year-old with a throaty laugh delivers mail to homes along the tree-lined streets of a rural route west of Richmond. On her own time, she revisits many of those yards to check on the eastern bluebirds living in her homemade shelters. 

Jean Bozarth picks weeds from her garden as she watches the Mail Ma'am (a neighborhood nickname for Shultz) and Knight hammer a black metal pole into her front lawn. "It takes a village to raise a bluebird," Bozarth says without irony, as the builders fit a black metal baffle on the pole to ward off predators and then mount a 12-inch rectangular wooden structure on top. They face the box's circular opening toward the paved street. The whole operation takes just a few minutes, yet it can provide a home for generations of bluebirds. 

With permission from homeowners and help from Knight and her twin sister, Risa Elliott, Shultz has installed 110 of these boxes along her route in three-plus years. Her Host-a-House effort seeks to foster peace between bluebirds and the residents in whose newspaper boxes they sometimes nest. "People feel like they're vermin, like they're dirty or diseased," 

Shultz says. "So they'll get rid of the nest--even one with eggs or chicks." Her structures offer a safe alternative, and one that may give the cavity nesters options against hole-stealing, nonnative species like European starlings and house sparrows. Current bluebird populations are stable, and the brilliant blue, six-inch thrushes are common; by offering them alternate homes, Shultz hopes to keep things that way.

The program's achievements can be measured by the number of successful offspring. Shultz, a licensed bander, tagged about 200 chicks in 2011, more than double the previous year's total.She sends all data she collects to a fellow bander who passes the information on to the Bird Banding Laboratory run by the U.S. Geological Survey.  

"To see Rita at her best, watch her band a bluebird," says Ann Ramsey, who lives along Shultz's route and has several boxes on her property. "She gently reaches into the nest, where the mother is sitting on her eggs--nesting box, courtesy of Rita--quickly wraps a band around her leg, and off she flies. No harm done. The nesting mother comes right back to her eggs."

 

Getting it all done requires a do-it-yourself mentality that's obvious when chatting with Shultz.To enlist volunteer lawns, she mailed--via the U.S. Postal Service, of course--75 letters explaining her vision, along with self-addressed, stamped postcards for interested homeowners to mail back. "I thought I'd get about 25 responses," she says, pausing. "I got 67"--about a 90 percent response rate! One neighbor, who happens to be a machinist, built support structures for 50baffles for free. And some clever thinking and smart math turned up a way to make three boxes for the price of one. Shultz fronted the project's initial $1,000 cost and continues to pump into it any available funds she has. She never asks people to pay for their bluebird boxes (though some insist on reimbursing her), and she personally cares for each one.

"We have [people] in Richmond Audubon who are bird banders, who are enthusiastic, clearly driven people," says Caroline Coe, vice president of the chapter. "Rita is one of those. And she and her sister and her friend Mick are some of those exceptional banders."With support from the chapter, Shultz works on an avian monitoring program and has previously helped with its silent auctions. During the little free time she has, she also leads bird walks and bands other avian species, including northern saw-whet owls and prothonotary warblers. 

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Michele Berger

Michele Berger is Audubon magazine's Associate Editor and social media manager. Follow her on Twitter @MicheleWBerger. Follow the magazine on Facebook.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

Bluebirds

Fantastic!!! It inspires me to ask my neighbors if I can add a bluebird house to their yard! I was surprised to get a family of them last year and hope the offspring will stay in the area!!
Thanks for the inspiration!

two incredible women

Both Rita and Risa are 2 extraordinary people. Their passion for wildlife is contagious. Their eagerness to share their knowledge, in a way that engages all people, is a gift that has personally enriched my life. Thank you Rita and Risa for contributing so much to all our lives.

Rita the mailma'am

Rita's commitment level is fantastic. For years I donated a raptor program at our Richmond Audubon fundraiser auction; Rita was the winning bidder and, using her own money and resources, she put on a wild bird appreciation event including my live bird presentation. It was hosted by a family on her mail route. Rita demonstrated her banding equipment and explained how it all worked. She brought live examples of native wildlife garden plants, and did giveaways of those, birdhouses, bird-themed educational toys, and more. She made posters showing the local species found along the mail route. An enthusiastic audience of neighbors enjoyed it all. Rita has taken her job and used it to launch her passion and take it to the people in a way I find wonderfully inspiring. I'm proud to know her.

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